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LONDON — The vast jamboree at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg involved a huge amount of partying and junketing. The costs of travel and accommodations for delegations of ministers and officials were huge. Was it worthwhile?

It is tempting to say that it was largely a waste of money that could have been better spent on some of the projects and promises made at the last summit in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago. An article in the London Times last Wednesday — the final day of the summit — said most of the 70-page agreement “is a combination of warm words, rehashed promises or targets that are vague or aspirations that are, in any practical sense, meaningless.” There were certainly lots of high-flown statements of intent (they were hardly promises) with little certainty that any of the targets would be met within the set time frames.

Some observers from nongovernmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and Oxfam seem, to have been very disappointed by the amount of “hot air” poured out in cliches hour after hour by speakers at the conference. The contrast between the allegedly luxurious conditions, in which the delegates lived, and the appalling conditions in the nearby African slums left a bad taste in the mouths of many observers.

It would, however, be a mistake to write off this summit entirely, and the official United Nations line that it was “modestly successful” is probably fair. The meeting focused the eyes of world leaders on serious issues and should have shaken them out of any feelings of complacency that they may have had. The summit could have been, but was not, disastrous. The next round of world trade negotiations at Doha, for instance, was not derailed.

Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the U.N. Development Program, is reported to have declared: “There is an energy between governments, the private sector and civil society. It has been the world’s biggest trade fair, and it will bear fruit.”

The presence of large numbers of businessmen, eager to demonstrate their environmental concerns and what their companies can offer, offended some people who are prejudiced against global corporations. A director of Friends of the Earth condemned business for hijacking the summit to promote free-market ideology, emotionally declaring that it was “the worst political sellout in decades.”

This was not, however, the view of the vast majority of participants. The presence of so many business leaders demonstrated a radical change in the attitudes of many company boards, which have had to acknowledge that they do have significant responsibilities for preserving the environment and that a failure to pay attention to such considerations will affect their futures as profitable enterprises.

One problem for organizers was the vastness and controversial nature of the agenda. Biodiversity, for example, is an immensely complicated subject. Still, targets were agreed on difficult issues such as the restoration of fish stocks.

On climate change, despite the failure of the United States to endorse the Kyoto Protocol, there was no further watering down of targets. Unfortunately, because of opposition from the U.S. and oil producers, agreement could not be reached on targets for increasing the use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. Instead there was only a commitment to “an urgent and substantial” increase in these energy sources.

At least one important target agreement was reached: halving the number of people in the world without access to clean water by 2015. This may not seem very significant and may not be reached, but it shows that the diminution of poverty in the developing world remains a high priority for participating governments.

Another beneficial outcome, reflecting the presence of business organizations at the summit, was the development of public-private partnerships to improve services for the world’s poor. The failure of the South African government to take the radical measures needed to cope with the growing AIDS epidemic in the country has already led to at least one company in South Africa offering medical help to its workforce in combating the spread of AIDS. Such help is, of course, not just a piece of altruism; it is very much in the company’s interest to try to maintain the health of its workers.

The final text issued by the summit committed organizations such as the International Monetary Fund to include sustainable development goals into their strategy and programs. If this means that such organizations need to make clear statements on how they will achieve such a target in each program, the effect will be akin to that of environmental impact statements that increasingly must accompany development plans.

The U.S. government’s negative attitude toward a number of themes was criticized by many delegates. U.S. officials fought back, arguing that President George W. Bush had greatly increased the U.S. aid budget and was the biggest donor to UNICEF (U.N. Children’s Fund) and the World Food Program but that the U.S. would continue to withhold support from U.N. organizations considered less effective.

Japan’s role at the summit was not widely reported in Britain. This is a pity, not just because the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Japan but also because the nation is a large contributor of overseas aid as well as a major energy consumer.

The delegates have all gone home, and the real effort to implement agreements on targets can now begin. The role of the media and of NGOs is to watch and lobby hard to see that there is no back-sliding. In the future it may be better to organize more lower-level meetings to thrash out detailed action plans rather than to rely on huge jamborees such as this.

Yet, by attracting publicity for the very important issues discussed, the conference should have done some good. My conclusion is that it was neither a success nor a failure, but had some real value.

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